By Alex McPherson

Depicting a frightening near-future scenario, Alex Garland’s “Civil War” is a sincere ode to journalists, a chilling warning to take history seriously, and a stark reminder to never lose our humanity amid chaos.

Eschewing backstory to throw us right into the middle of the conflict, “Civil War” depicts an America where an authoritarian, three-term president (Nick Offerman), who has disbanded the FBI, leads an army of loyalists against the secessionist “Western Forces” of Texas and California. Florida has also formed its own breakaway faction, apparently.

The less one thinks about the logistics of Garland’s film, the better. What really matters is that WF forces are getting closer and closer to Washington, DC, with the President in their sights, and America has turned into a scorched battleground.

The clock’s ticking for our lead characters – celebrated war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Reuters print journalist Joel (Wagner Moura) – who are determined to snag an interview with the President before he’s killed, even though it may cost them their own lives. We first meet them in New York City, covering a gathering for water rations that ends in a suicide bombing.

Lee encounters Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young, wannabe photojournalist, on the scene. Jessie idolizes Lee and wants to follow in her footsteps, while Lee feels uncertain about encouraging Jessie to become a photojournalist —even as she recognizes part of herself in Jessie that has long atrophied into cold professionalism.

Lee has spent her career documenting overseas conflicts, becoming hardened and haunted by the atrocities she’s witnessed – continuing to put herself in harm’s way for a potentially misplaced belief that her photos will mean something.

Joel, hard-drinking and charismatic, is fueled by a thrill-seeker’s urge to capture the next Big Moment. His sociability, contrasting with Lee’s, masks his own trauma and desensitization; he’s holding onto a sliver of boyishness through the nightmare.

Lee and Joel reluctantly agree to bring along aging New York Times writer Sammy (an ever-comforting Stephen McKinley Henderson) on their trip from NYC to DC. Sammy, out of shape and vulnerable though he is, is still drawn to danger and his craft. He acts as a pseudo father-figure for the group – helping guide them (to a point) through the various predicaments they run into along their road trip from Hell.

Jessie also weasels her way into the group thanks to Joel, much to Lee’s annoyance. Thus, the archetype-filled press squad begins their voyage across the heartland – encountering numerous terrors along the way, documenting them for the future, and grappling with their work’s purpose (or lack thereof) as an already-scarred America continuously slashes new wounds.

Indeed, Garland’s film is an uncomfortable, eerily prescient, and strangely entertaining experience. It’s difficult to look away from this nightmarish vision of a war on America’s soil, particularly given America’s current political tensions and fresh memories of the January 6 insurrection.

However, Garland avoids delving too much into the specifics of the conflict, and “Civil War” isn’t concerned with examining what led America to this point, or giving us a clear side to root for or against. The film tackles grander ambitions than just capitalizing on partisan hatred that anyone with an Internet connection can witness every day.

Rather, he presents a possible future where complete dehumanization of the Other runs rampant, and any hope for peace is shattered by self-perpetuating cycles of violence. Seen through the eyes of our central journalists, the film succeeds at both depicting their heroic sacrifices, as well as issuing a grim warning to viewers without providing easy answers. 

Garland’s politically vague approach (he’s British, an outsider looking in) allows us to observe the horror without playing on or exploiting current offscreen tensions — an equalizing choice that renders the film’s graphic acts of barbarity all the more disturbing; startling and not sensationalized, every side is capable of cruelty.

Some viewers may decry the film’s both-sides-ism stance, but Garland’s film works better as a possible future taken to extremes, where negotiations and democracy have seemingly failed, and people have reverted to base instincts to cope.

As the characters variously become more numb, enraged, and even darkly energized by the situations they witness (massive shootouts, an idyllic Main Street patrolled by rooftop snipers, a bullet-ridden Santa’s wonderland), “Civil War” paints them as noble souls performing a necessary task, some of them mentally crumbling before our eyes.

Garland’s film, then, despite all its political side-stepping, stresses the importance of making their sacrifices and effort mean something, both within America and beyond it, within the film and outside of it. Garland puts the onus on us viewers to pay attention and to not merely let images wash over us as content to be consumed and forgotten, but rather as tools to be acted upon for change and action. 

It’s a provocative, somewhat self-important message, one that has faith in cinema’s ability to affect hearts and minds, and its effectiveness depends on whether viewers are willing to pick up what Garland’s putting down.

Still, “Civil War” works on a more basic level, too, depicting complex characters on a visually striking journey full of suspense and tragedy with an occasional glint of gallows humor, each stop a new opportunity for taughtly-directed drama.

Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography finds beauty in the desolation of familiar spaces — abandoned vehicles strewn across empty highways, suburban neighborhoods morphed into warzones, a forest aflame, and once vibrant, buzzing cities becoming eerily quiet, with the threat of violence lurking around every corner.

Combat sequences — enhanced by stellar sound work — are jolting and involving, going from cacophonies to silence as we sometimes abruptly cut to watching Jessie’s pictures develop. 

The whole ensemble, too, is outstanding and has great chemistry, giving their characters a haunted gravitas. They embody, in distinct ways, a push/pull dynamic between documenting the truth and acting on innate empathy that might get them killed. Their contradictions only make them more compelling, rendering the film’s alternately cerebral and hectic rhythms powerful on both a large and small scale.

Dunst and Spaeny are particularly effective portraying characters that are seemingly mirror images of each other at different stages of their lives. Lee sees her former self in Jessie, a person who still has hope for the profession and for a better future, but witnesses first-hand Jessie’s growing desensitization — losing pieces of her youthfulness and, in some respects, her sense of self as she chases danger for the next shot.

Dunst gives an emotionally wrenching performance illustrating the shreds of hope and compassion that shine, if only briefly, through her tough exterior, while Spaeny sells Jessie’s arc without being melodramatic — Jessie bonding with the team as she comes into her own as the journalist she’s dreamed of becoming.

The film’s more memorable performance, though, is given by Jesse Plemmons as a member of a militia who’s as scary (if not scarier) than any recent horror movie monster, in a scene that’s difficult to shake.

Ultimately, “Civil War” is a gripping experience that will grow in power upon further reflection. It will no doubt spark heated debates — a feature that only great, necessary art can provide.

“Civil War” is a 2024 action science fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Sonoya Mizunoand Nick Offerman. It is rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout, and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opens in theatres April 12. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus

Unrelentingly grim, the harrowing action film “Civil War” is a provocative look at a nightmarish “What If?” scenario — and claims to be science fiction as it’s set in the future.

Disturbing real-life events in recent years have stirred up thoughts of a domestic doomsday, a cataclysmic reckoning with armed militias if our country’s structures of power, authority and social norms are subverted.

Projecting a second Civil War without getting too deep into politics, British writer-director Alex Garland has escalated America’s current divisions to envision a ravaged war-torn landscape with refugee camps, resistance fighters, military checkpoints, and violent conflict zones. We don’t see how it starts, just that it did, and the nation is engulfed in violent conflicts.

He focuses on the press documenting the atrocities in besieged areas, and their struggles to work and survive in a dystopian dictatorship. Those ethics and their costs personally are a key part of the story.

As a professional journalist for 46 years, I found this very raw and realistic film triggering. It ramped up my anxiety from start to finish, so it’s hard for me to separate fact from fiction here. 

However, as a film the technical work is first-rate while Garland’s screenplay, meant to be an allegory, is a tad wobbly.

It’s no coincidence that the national release date, April 12, just happens to be the day in 1861 that the first — and so far, only — Civil War started. (Note: The film did have its premiere at SXSW on March 14).

This much is true: Actions have consequences. We can all agree on that.

And whether you’re alarmed by seeing a partisan extremist holding an assault rifle and asking what kind of an American are you while he stands next to a mass grave is going to determine how you feel about this hard-hitting but not entirely convincing film.

The primary character is Kirsten Dunst as Lee Smith from Colorado, a bold, taciturn war photographer patterned after the famous World War II chronicler Lee Miller, who embedded with the military in Europe, and was among the first in Dachau concentration camp after liberation.

Dunst plays Lee as a hardened risk-taker who eventually shows signs of being weary of all the horror she’s witnessed. Wagner Moura is her more gregarious but still jaded colleague Joel, a reporter for Reuters News Service.

Their dispatches are defining images for a homeland where some folks are pretending it’s not happening. Their next assignment is taking them from New York City 800 miles away to D.C. to interview the president. 

With no mention of a name or party affiliation, he is serving his third term and is played with gravitas by Nick Offerman. We do know he abolished the FBI, and a bit of dialogue refers to an ‘anti-fa massacre.’

The pair are trying to get to the White House before rebel factions do, and complications arise with the addition of two passengers. 

Their professional rival, a grizzled veteran named Sammy from the New York Times, tags along – and he’s played by first-class character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson.

The film’s strength lies in the performances, with Cailee Spaeny a standout as Jessie, a novice photographer whose encounter with her role model Lee leads to her inclusion in the car. Lee is reluctantly forced to take Jessie under her wing, and it’s on the job training in a hurry.

Garland prefers to keep a distance instead of emotionally engaging us, as the desensitized journalists are sketched in broad strokes. Fueled by adrenaline, they fearlessly rush into danger while others flee it – because that is what they do.

Garland uses snapshots of their work to demonstrate the impact of visual images in telling a story. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s vivid work is exceptional as he contrasts the bucolic countryside with the bloody chaos of bombings. Hardy has collaborated with Garland before, on his acclaimed “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.”

While journalists are notorious for gallows humor, these cynical correspondents go about their jobs with workmanlike precision. Yet, the trauma they witness has changed them – although we don’t get too many details.

That is a frustrating aspect of this film – the lack of specifics, which is intentional, but confusing because it is so vague. I get Garland’s point that he’s trying to be sly, but whether he’s lensing the aftermath of apathy or anarchy — or both — is unclear.

Several states have alliances, and soldiers from the Western Forces are headed to the capital. Don’t waste time trying to figure out what California, Texas and Florida are up to because you’re not going to find out.

Garland has written some of the best sci-fi films of the new millennium, including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Never Let Me Go.”

His films always pack a visceral punch, and for this one, the examples of torture and war crimes are grisly. Just as chilling, though, are glimpses of random weaponized citizens roaming in quaint small towns.

Editor Jake Roberts has done a fine job of plunging us into the darkness and despair of this depiction. The sound work is award-worthy, from the loud bursts of ricocheting bullets to the primal screams you don’t hear.

However, for all its bravura, the film’s needle-drops are puzzling, and are more jarring than appropriate. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s odd choices in music don’t seem to fit the action that we’re witnessing.

In the controversy-courting “Civil War,” a Brit gives us an unsettling look at a fractured America without much rhetoric, which could be a clarion call if it wasn’t so detached in its details.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be affected in some way by it. We have been watching similar footage in other countries, and now, this hits close to home. Garland is fueling opinions, that is for sure. Given such an inflammatory subject matter, the post-release debates should be interesting. 

(As Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.” — Judge Taylor)

“Civil War” is a 2024 action science fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Sonoya Mizuno, and Nick Offerman. It is rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout, and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opens in theatres April 12. Lynn’s Grade: somewhere between a B- and a C+.

By Lynn Venhaus

Women of privilege but not power in a male-dominated world has been a theme in other Sofia Coppola films, and “Priscilla” fits that mold in its look at the heavily documented superstar life of The King of Rock ‘n Roll, but from his sheltered bride’s perspective.

More style than substance, “Priscilla” could be considered a companion piece to last year’s flashier, bolder “Elvis,” and presents snapshots of the Presleys’ relationship, only hinting at deeper issues instead of delving into them.

That keeps the pair at arm’s length, meaning we don’t invest emotionally – although the performers convey believable characters. Portraying the sweet, naïve Priscilla Beaulieu, Cailee Spaeny is a stunner in a breakthrough role. As the sultry superstar, Jacob Elordi, as he has done as the bad-boy jock in “Euphoria,” implies a complexity to the singer-matinee idol that isn’t explored.

Yet, the movie is named after the homesick schoolgirl who was thrust into an intoxicating whirlwind romance that she was incapable of understanding because of her not-fully-formed emotional development (and his). After all, he was 24 and she was 14 when they met while he was stationed in the Army in Germany and her stepfather was an officer. If you fast forward 60 years later, and the couple never would have survived today’s harsh social media scrutiny.

Whether intentionally or not, Elvis doesn’t come across in the best light if we’re looking through a modern lens. Did he groom her and take advantage of an underage girl? Or were feelings pure and the connection on a different level?

But, of course, their era was a very different time in gender politics. They were married from 1967 to 1973, first meeting in 1959. After Elvis’s death in 1977,at age 42, Priscilla took over the reins of his legacy, and became generally regarded as a savvy businesswoman. She also had an acting career, most notably in “The Naked Gun” movies and on TV’s “Dallas.”

Elvis Presley Enterprises, which represents the trust and the physical estate Graceland, denied using his music catalogue for the film. Priscilla is the co-founder and former chairperson, and serves as an executive producer of this film. Music supervisor Phoenix is left to needle-drops of the time period.

In a moody, evocative way, benefitting from cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s lens, writer-director Coppola has created a fairy-tale fantasy, where an impressionable girl lives a surreal teenage dream. Elvis treats the dainty teenager like a doll, making sure she dresses in a certain way and creating her look according to his specifications.

Coppola has mined this point of view before, as the phrase “women in a gilded cage” has been used to describe her previous films – “The Virgin Suicides,” “Somewhere,” and “Marie Antoinette.” Coppola can and has defied expectations, for she followed up a widely panned acting turn in “The Godfather Part III” as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary in 1990 with “The Virgin Suicides” in 1999, eventually winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 2003’s “Lost in Translation.”

Similar to what happens to Cinderella and the handsome prince (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) when reality sets in during the second act of “Into the Woods,” we view a paradise lost. You can feel Priscilla’s crushing loneliness while she attends an all-girls Catholic high school in Memphis and “keeps the home fires burning” at Graceland while he was touring or making movies or hanging with his TCB entourage. The suffocating oppression is as obvious as Xanadu in “Citizen Kane” yet the film barely touches the surface of the corrupting over-indulgence.

The production design by Tamara Deverell, who has worked on several of Guillermo del Toro’s films, is meticulous in its gaudy, retro stylings of Graceland and the high life in Las Vegas. Costume designer Stacey Battat has created marvelous vintage looks for every character, but her work dressing Priscilla is exquisite in its array of colors, textures, and tiny details.

Spaeny, who played the teen who went missing in “Mare of Easttown” and has been in minor roles, shows how that isolation manifests in her character, and how she transforms from a blank slate into what Elvis wanted and expected in a wife.

At 6’ 5”, Elordi is a striking Elvis, and conveys a more human side of the legend we think we know. While a lavish lifestyle is depicted, he portrays the King as a country boy trying to navigate the pitfalls of fame whose ego has a hard time shaking off slights. He’s attempting to live up to an image he thinks he should – wine, women, song – while compartmentalizing his home life.

It would have been interesting to address more of Priscilla’s side, as she finally gets enough gumption to leave, but the film ends abruptly – just as Priscilla is coming into her own as a person. She was 28 then.

The source material is Priscilla’s memoir “Elvis and Me” from 1986, which recalls the intimate details of their private life while living a very public lifestyle. The movie indicates nuggets of truth behind the tabloid rumors, and refers to, but glosses over, his peccadillos.

But the biggest omission is getting a sense that the two had an unbreakable bond that continued after his death, which Priscilla has maintained.

While fascinating, “Priscilla” is an incomplete work, and needed more to fill in the blanks.

“Priscilla” is a 2023 biographical drama-romance, written and directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk. It is rated R for drug use and some language, and runs 1 hour, 50 minutes. It opened in theaters November 3. Lynn’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Stylistically resonant with absorbing performances from Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi, director Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” is emotionally removed, eschewing a deeper dive into its subject’s headspace for dreamlike stasis with little payoff and, ultimately, not much of note to say.

Based on the book “Elvis and Me” by Priscilla Presley (who also executive-produced the film), Coppola’s adaptation charts the whirlwind romance between young Priscilla (Spaeny) and the insecure, hip-gyration-loving King of Rock and Roll himself (Elordi). We’re introduced to 14-year-old Priscilla (then Beaulieu) in 1959, when she’s a high school student living with her parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) on a U.S. Air Force Base in Wiesbaden, Germany. A chance encounter at a diner leads to her being invited to a house party hosted by 24-year-old Elvis, who’s currently serving in the Army.

Priscilla is thrilled and, after battling her anxious, apprehensive parents, is allowed to attend. Once she arrives at the party in Bad Nauheim, which the film frames like a moody jazz club radiating from the powerful man at its center, Elvis (again, 10 years Priscilla’s senior) almost immediately falls for her; she reminds him of home. 

Thus begins their deeply problematic courtship. Elvis leaves Germany for The States, which tears the crestfallen Priscilla apart: she spends her days anxiously awaiting letters and calls, daydreaming through classes and growing increasingly jealous hearing about Elvis’s tabloid headlines involving other women. In 1963, she’s summoned to Graceland, indulging in extravagance (and prescription drugs, instigated by Elvis) with his posse of rowdy friends who became known as the Memphis Mafia. 

After returning to Germany, she and Elvis convince her parents to let her move to Graceland to finish her senior year of high school. Everything seems like a fairy tale in Priscilla’s eyes, at least at the beginning, but deep cracks begin to form in their relationship. Denied intimacy and manufactured to be Elvis’s porcelain doll of a wife, Priscilla is sapped of independence – trapped in a glossy cage with an emotionally unintelligent artist grappling with his own identity at the expense of hers, until she decides that she’s had enough.

Indeed, “Priscilla” is a depressingly bleak look at a relationship steeped in toxic behaviors and feelings of claustrophobia. While Coppola effectively conveys the story’s saddening atemporality, in which Priscilla’s lack of development reflects her captor’s attempts to mold her, the intentionally distant approach backfires. The film jumps erratically through time without meaningful buildup to Priscilla’s rebellion, or, oddly, real insight into who she is and hopes to be.

The performances, however, are difficult to fault, even when delivering Coppola’s occasionally clunky dialogue. Spaeny precisely embodies Priscilla’s wide-eyed youthfulness and growing maturity. We observe her longing, euphoria, and disillusionment with a celebrity she’s idealized and who has trapped her in cycles of loving and abuse, tenderness and chaos. “Priscilla” is largely framed through her eyes, as we watch her enduring situations where others talk at her and she, often nonverbally, emotes multitudes through subtle facial expressions and body language. Stacy Battat’s costume design further helps emphasize Priscilla’s separation from her past and from her true self, fashioned to appease Elvis’s demands. Her frustration and yearning is efficiently portrayed by an actor deserving of all the accolades (hopefully) headed her way.

Elordi is similarly effective, taking a far different approach than Austin Butler’s flamboyant (and highly entertaining) turn in Baz Luhrman’s 2022 biopic, “Elvis.” Elordi nails Elvis’s voice and physique, towering over Spaeny in an on-the-nose reminder of their age gap and power dynamic. Elordi’s Elvis is charismatic, trouble-making, and selfish, a victim of stardom grappling with his own image and expectations forced on him by people like Colonel Tom Parker. 

While “Priscilla” is more focused on his direct interactions (or lack thereof) with Priscilla, we infer outside drama and betrayal through conversations Priscilla overhears and headlines she reads. The victimization and mental struggles that Elvis experiences seep into his personal life. He might love Priscilla on some level, but sees her as someone to be controlled. Elvis holds her back to retain her purity, perhaps as a way for him to appease his own regrets and status as a sex symbol while he lives a life of stardom singing and acting in Hollywood (sleeping with many women along the way).

With such committed performances from Spaeny and Elordi, it’s a shame that “Priscilla” is such a cold viewing experience – which might be the point. This is a dark story of fantasy brought down to earth, less about empowerment than disempowerment. 

The film’s first half unfolds like a dream, hazy and ethereal, as Sarah Flack’s editing conveys the whirlwind romance with a sense of inertia that Priscilla finds difficult to break free from. What starts out as unexpected, surprising, and thrilling devolves into tedious cycles of mistreatment and placation. We feel for Priscilla, mostly thanks to Spaeny’s acting, but the film’s second half sags due to Coppola’s seeming refusal to dig deeper into Priscilla’s psyche; more based on vibes than genuine insight as the years tick by and Priscilla becomes a bride and mother. 

Frequent Coppola collaborator Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is murky and cloudy, echoing Priscilla’s stagnation – never drawing too much attention to Tamara Deverell’s period-accurate set design. Coppola frequently resorts to montages to depict the passing years, emphasizing how little has changed in Priscilla’s fraught situation.

This minimalist approach to Priscilla’s rebellion is muted to a fault. There’s little crescendo to her final decision, besides viewers knowing from the outset that she eventually divorces Elvis. As a result, Coppola’s restrained approach to the material seems like checking off boxes instead of organically telling a story about one woman’s resilience in the face of adversity. The reasons Priscilla continues to stay with Elvis are complex and worthy of exploration, though the film holds her at arm’s length. 

Combined with a jarringly abrupt ending and a soundtrack that too often tries to sell emotions through lyrics (with no Elvis tunes in the lineup), “Priscilla” stays afloat thanks to the magnetic performances of its two leads. For Spaeny and Elordi, especially Spaeny, “Priscilla” is worth a look, but it remains a missed opportunity for a filmmaker capable of greatness.

“Priscilla” is a 2023 drama directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, and Dagmara Dominczyk. It is rated R for drug use and some language, and runs 1 hour, 50 minutes. It opened in theaters November 3. Alex’s Grade: B-